Question of the Day: Life-Changing Books

1 02 2007

What are five books that changed your life?

Inspired by Ms. Genevieve.

1.) A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins — This was the first of Jenkins’s books, and it recounts his mid-1970s walk (yeah, a real walk) from upstate New York to New Orleans. I probably read Walk five times before the end of high school. I was really taken by the gumption it took for Jenkins to do this, by the freedom he had, and by his openness to everyone he met. I wanted some of that, some of all of that, in my life. I still haven’t walked across America, or even across town, but I think the book helped me get determined to leave my small hometown.

2.) Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 by Hunter S. Thompson — As a kid, I was interested in politics and journalism, and I fell for the great gonzo journalist’s account of the presidential campaign between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. (It’s amazing I wasn’t invited to more parties, huh?) Reading it made me feel a little bit like I was on a crazy, neverending presidential campaign. And the contrast between the two candidates helped me figure out where I was on the political spectrum. Even if you don’t like politics, you’d surely find Thompson’s, um, wild account to be entertaining.

3.) The Hite Report on Male Sexuality by Shere Hite — Like a lot of gay men, especially those from small towns, I came out at the public library. Sorta, anyway. By the time that I was in my early teens, I’d known for a long time that I was attracted to my own sex. I just didn’t know anyone who could explain it to me. My parents, although really good people, didn’t seem like plausible resources. And I certainly didn’t know anyone who was openly gay. As it turned out, though, I just needed my library card. The books at the library, and there were many of them, helped me figure out that being gay was perfectly natural and nothing to worry about (and I didn’t). The Hite Report made a big impression on me, in particular, because of the first-person narratives provided by so many men. If those guys were normal, I knew I was, too. (Plus, many of the stories were downright hot. It was sort of my first, um, porn. Blush.) The Hite Report, and other books like it, were so important in my life that I probably should’ve listed this as No. 1.

4.) Europe and the People Without History by Eric Wolf — Wolf’s book is a masterpiece of anthropology and sociology, and it helped define what is known in those fields as world-systems theory. That approach views large parts of the world as elements of a single, global social system; in other words, it’s a kind of global analysis. Wolf’s contribution was to take that approach even to pre-industrial times, and his book documents how even the remotest parts of the world were drawn into, and affected by, the larger global social structure. I know that sounds dry, but the book is absolutely fascinating. It played a large role in my master’s thesis in sociology….

5.) Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis — Lewis, a Nobel Prize winner, is my favorite American author of all time, and Babbitt, from 1922, is my favorite of his novels. It’s a send-up of American conformity, civic boosterism, religion, and isolationism; it’s a biting critique of commerce practiced for the sake of commerce. The protagonist is George Babbitt, a moderately successful real estate broker. Babbitt is unhappy with the limits of “successful” American life, yet he’s too afraid to do anything about it. Although that may sound dull, the book is actually laugh-out-loud funny, and—in the end—the distasteful Babbitt becomes an object of sympathy. He’s a victim of the hollowness of the American Dream, at least as that Dream was understood in the 1920s.

Other contenders: Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground; The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong; Sociological Theory by George Ritzer; Main Street by Sinclair Lewis; Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors; Collected Poems by Allen Ginsburg; and Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.




One response

1 02 2007

I like this question… Hunter S. Thompson sure has a following (though I hear more about him since he died.)

My five:

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
High Tide in Tucson, by Barbara Kingsolver
The Social Animal, by Elliott Aronson
& Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

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